Most Charleston artists are cut from the same cloth. They’re the kinds of folks who can bend and not break, who are used to being self-sufficient. These artists create work and sell pieces — but they often have other gigs too, working part time at local arts and crafts stores, or leading the educational efforts of local organizations.
In other words, they know how to hustle.
The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent quarantine forced artists out of rented studio spaces and into their homes. Like the rest of us, they’ve navigated the work-from-home model as best they can. When working for yourself, though, there’s no guaranteed paycheck every two weeks — you’ve got to make art to make rent.
“I’m used to this mentality,” says Mia Loia, “you’ve gotta keep your butt in motion if you want to stay afloat.” Loia, a freelance illustrator and designer, is the developer of children’s programming at Redux Contemporary Art Center. She’s also an artist partner with local nonprofit Engaging Creative Minds, which has her visiting area schools for a variety of programming.
Needless to say, all of those school programs — what Loia describes as a “huge” source of income — have been canceled. She says she feels lucky that she has money in savings.
Like Loia, local artist Andrew King knows the importance of getting to work. While he admits he’s “currently stifled,” he’s pushing through. “I understand my creative process enough where I know that I just have to keep going into the studio even when I don’t know exactly what I’m working on,” he says.
Artist Julia Deckman joins Loia and King in the “get it done” mentality. “The way I cope with most challenges is by making lists and keeping as busy as possible,” she says. Recently laid off from her part-time job at Artist and Craftsman, Deckman knows there is a lot she can’t control right now, so she’s “trying to stay in the present moment.”
A recent national COVID-19 survey of artists and creative workers, done by Americans for the Arts (AFTA), found that 95 percent of American artists have experienced income loss, with the average decline in estimated total annual income hovering at just over $27,000.
That survey also notes that 80 percent of artists surveyed do not yet have a plan to recover from the crisis.
While the stats are grim, Charleston artists are persevering, learning how to capitalize on social media and other outlets to connect with customers. Kristin Mein, of Kaypea Jewelry, says that she was “blown away” by the support of her customers after posting a new collection online.
The collection ended up selling out.
“While I still get a little nervous every time I go to release another collection, I just keep telling myself that if I make beautiful things, people will buy them,” she says.
Deckman, too, has had great responses from her clients; she’s currently offering “pandemic portrait” rates through the Miller Gallery, effectively supporting the gallery and creating art for people who can’t afford full-price work right now.
Artist Anne Abueva has done her best to manage expectations during this strange time. “One of my teachers years ago said to work within your energy level,” she says. “That means if you are tired and exhausted, maybe work on postage stamp-size pieces. And when you are bursting at the seams with energy — go huge, and whatever other levels are in between.”
Loia is making due with what she’s got right now, which is extra time. She’s getting back into portraiture, which she says is one of her real passions. Normally she’s so busy teaching kids, she doesn’t have a chance to practice what she teaches. In painting portraits, she’s getting a chance to do what she loves — and become a stronger instructor for her students.
As cities and states around the country begin to tentatively reopen, it may be fair to think that there’s a light at the end of this dark tunnel. Charleston artists, for the most part, are still finding that light, with no guaranteed end in sight. Sure, they may make up part of that 80 percent of national artists who don’t have a solid plan for the future. But they’re making the most of right now.
“Just get through one thing,” says Loia. Quoting Nelson Mandela she adds, “It seems impossible until it’s done.”